October 7, 2003

Uncle Ezra Remains C.U.'s Secret Advisor

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“Dear Uncle Ezra” Cornell’s online question and answer forum is entering its 17th year. One of Cornell’s strongest student help programs, it has been profiled in the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Despite this program’s notoriety and longevity, it remains cloaked in mystery because of its focus on anonymity.

“Dear Uncle Ezra” is an online forum designed to give people related to Cornell an anonymous forum for asking whatever questions are on their minds.

“There are questions about admissions from all over the world, from high school students in India and from hopefuls in April, ready to become part of us,” said the current Uncle Ezra. According to Jerry Feist, former Assistant Dean of Students, Director of the Cornell Counseling Center and the first Uncle Ezra, the purpose of the program was to reflect the helpful spirit of Cornell. In trying to do so, the forum receives a spectrum of questions, beyond ones directly related to Cornell issues. For example, Uncle Ezra once received a question about whether people wearing Mickey Mouse suits smiled inside their costumes. According to associate dean and Cornell’s second Uncle Ezra, Tanni Hall, called up Disney and they said yes, they did.

Jerry Feist and Cornell Computer Service’s Steve Worona were the progenitors of this program. They initially created the program in part to utilize the then new computer technology to simultaneously help individual students with questions, while allowing every Cornell student to gain the wisdom. The innovation of Dear Uncle Ezra and perhaps one of the program’s main selling points at its inception was the guarantee of complete anonymity. According to Hall, Dear Uncle Ezra might have been successful because it was brand new and totally safe. In the early stages of the program, there was some concern that no one would write. However, once the program got started they immediately began to receive letters.

While Dear Uncle Ezra answers questions of various degrees of seriousness, a significant part of the letters deal with serious personal issues. Indeed, according to “Ask Ezra’s” website, one of the first queries, in the fall of 1986, was from a dining worker who was diagnosed with AIDS. Because of the gravity of some of the questions posed to Uncle Ezra, each Ezra has a strong background in counseling. Nonetheless, answering questions still poses some problems to Uncle Ezra. It is difficult to translate the give and take of a counseling session into written form, according to Hall. Beyond this, there is only one Uncle Ezra at a time, so each one tries to maintain the same narrative voice as the last Uncle Ezra.

Although there is only one Uncle Ezra, the writer is supported by a cadre of helpers. Uncle Ezra tracks down people who might be interested in answering questions and asks for their assistance. For example, one question regarding a fall movie The Bourne Identity was answered with the assistance of a professor and was later published in a physics magazine. Professors are recruited to help answer academic questions and sometimes readers themselves write in to volunteer as helpers.

Dear Uncle Ezra has grown tremendously from its original limitations of two dozen public computer sites around the campus and a handful of personal computers. Now the program is a global forum. Cornell students, families, alumni, and many of our global community have shared questions, thoughts, or feelings about virtually anything by asking Uncle Ezra, according to Dear Uncle Ezra’s website.

Archived article by Matthew Vernon